Co-written with Sophie Timms
Human beings and organisations have had to adapt to completely different ways of working to cope with the past few months. In many cases, we have shown great resilience and great flexibility. We’ve also adapted our expectations of people, and the virtual workplace has become more forgiving; no-one bats an eyelid if a dog/child/partner wanders into view during a video conference, and we have been forced to blend the personal and work environment like never before. This has had a largely positive influence, and has humanised the workplace and organisational culture, which can only be positive as we seek a more progressive and inclusive society. However, while we have become accustomed to this new environment and adjusted for what might still be a more prolonged period, it is worth exploring the unseen impact and some of the things we might be overlooking. A few things stand out.
We have already seen some casualties as we have hit the pause button on big and important long-term initiatives. Culture programmes? Diversity and Inclusion initiatives? Climate Change? These were all high up the board agenda as we headed into 2020 – but Covid-19 overtook all other priorities. However, events shaping our world mean organisations must ensure that long-term systemic efforts don’t grind to a halt. If anything, we now have multiple crises to manage all at once that require strong leadership and the ability to pivot quickly between priorities. Building sustainably out of this situation, or building back better, will be the difference between organisations that thrive and organisations that fail.
Let’s take culture. There was a lot of work being done to improve culture, especially tackling the particularly unsavoury end around inappropriate behaviour – and that work was urgent. It is still urgent. Working from home doesn’t necessarily mean the risk of inappropriate behaviour, discrimination, harassment or bullying goes away. It just means those things take on a different form. We only need look at new threats to school children to see how the cyber world can become the perfect vessel for perpetrators to channel their behaviour. This is because people adapt and they overcome and, worryingly, there is less chance of being overseen or overheard by bystanders. Sadly, in the last month, the National Bullying Helpline reported it was receiving 13,000 calls a week with a huge spike over the May Bank Holiday weekend compared to normal.
Let’s look more closely at the diversity and inclusion agenda. This has accelerated over the last couple of years and, whether forced by transparency, by changing expectations or simply by a desire to do the right thing, we were seeing a shift. The Government Equalities Office suspended this year’s April deadline for Gender Pay Gap reporting which was a pragmatic response, and vital discussions on Ethnicity Pay Gap reporting have hit some hurdles (although the next review into race inequality, which has not been lauded from all quarters, might push it forward again.) But the brakes cannot be applied to the Diversity & Inclusion agenda anymore.
The ‘widening of the gap’ between many inequalities both in society and in the workplace has been at the forefront of debate over the last few months: race; gender; financial; age inequalities alongside other previously less recognised inequalities around health; family status; wellbeing.
George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis proves that there is still a long, long way to go before we achieve anything like true racial equality. In the aftermath, some organisations and individuals are still working out how best to respond, and what message they ought to send to both their own people and their customers and clients. Even that, in itself, has been polarising. But it is important not to panic if you want to say something but don’t know yet what you want to say. Social media has lured firms into instinctive and knee-jerk responses, which can often hinder more than they can help. Though the outrage is – and should be – immediate, this is not just a ‘one moment in time’ issue. Organisations need to think about what they stand for, then learn, listen and actively take steps to make lasting change. A myriad of resources exists to help us – books, articles, podcasts, broadcasts – but the most important source of all are the people in your network who have direct experience of living with daily discrimination. Talk to them, and listen to their accounts of what needs to change and how to do it. As Tangy Morgan shared ‘businesses need to step up and stop just talking about it – think about what actions they are going to take to change.’
While we have been a captive audience at home, the crisis has shone an even brighter light on the inequalities in society. For people with homes with space, gardens and the latest tech, it probably hasn’t been a terrible struggle. For families in cramped accommodation, limited access to open spaces and education and no tech or connectivity, it probably has been a much more challenging time. The difference in home setting has been seen to amplify the power, status and wealth difference in the workplace typically between more junior and senior team members, often causing unintended consequences on engagement and psychological safety.
And what about new working from home, day to day problems, we might never have considered before 2020? Teams/Zoom/Google Hangouts/Blue Jeans, to name but a few, might not be a barrier for people who aren’t camera-shy and who are used to speaking up in meetings. But it is quite noticeable that for introverts or people who prefer to stay out of the limelight, the challenge of getting seen – or heard – becomes even greater. Creating a greater inequality around personality differences. A colleague might have a valid point to make or be waiting for their moment to contribute but, with condensed meetings, limited space to show who’s on, people being reduced to small icons or initials on a computer screen and no non-verbal cues, the likelihood is even greater that they will be overlooked.
Covid-19 is putting real pressure on mental health and wellbeing, in society and in the workplace from various triggers (job security, financial pressures, new ways of working and expectations, health anxiety). Let’s not under-estimate the impact furlough may have had on employees and a potential future imbalance between those Furloughed and non-Furloughed staff.
With growing awareness, many organisations are putting in support systems such as employee assistance programmes and mental health first aid training. But how easy is it to spot signs of suffering, remotely? In an office environment, if someone is struggling, there might be more chance a colleague could spot that their teammate is not coping and offer support. The virtual world makes this much harder and means our emotional intelligence needs to be even more finely tuned. Again, we should use all the abundant resource available: tool up, especially managers of others.
Yet while the crisis has hit hard, it also presents an opportunity to accelerate change. As gender balance expert Avivah Wittenberg-Cox notes: “The roller-coaster ride of gender equality over the past few decades may be depressing to some. But this moment, unlike any we’ve ever known, opens new options for the future — millions of them, in fact.” The question becomes not only about what has been pushed forward, pushed back or delayed, but how to start re-building with a more inclusive D&I agenda, one that cuts across culture, gender and digital.
Sometimes, the perceived wisdom appears to be to wait until legislation and regulations force a business’s hand to change culture, press forward initiatives to prioritise diversity and inclusion, or the zeitgeist catches up. That is surely flawed logic. Building a culture based on informed viewpoints and a shared vision and purpose must come from within. This requires leadership and accountability throughout an organisation and the recognition that this needs to be prioritised at the same time as building recovery plans, working remotely and living through constant change and uncertainty.
Covid has had centre-stage for 3 months and we’re hopefully moving into a new phase now, but this is a complex one, where challenges and crises are layering but this phase is also a ‘no excuses’ phase. No excuses to pause, to forget the lessons learned, to kick the can down the road, to halt progress.
Our top tips – be purpose driven, seek understanding (listen and learn) and release the progress button with a holistic and sustainable approach to D&I. Embed this throughout your employee lifecycle with true meaning, value and recognition at all levels of your organisation. Encourage your people to speak up and be heard!